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The end of childhood.
Do you like Arthur C. Clarke's work?
More hubs on Arthur C. Clarke and his work.
- Childhood's End and Futurist Beginnings
An excellent analysis of Childhood's End.
- Was Arthur C. Clarke the Greatest Science Fiction Writer?
This article provides a biography of Arthur C. Clarke and suggests that he was the greatest science fiction writer of his time.
Childhood's End is one of those books that I always recommend to people, but I can never figure out how to describe it to them. Mostly because when I mention it to the average person that the plot has aliens coming to Earth, the first thing they say is something along the lines of "oh like Independence Day." And then I say who the author is and the fact that he wrote the movie and novel 2001: A Space Odyssey....and then they get this expression on their face like I just told them I eat ripe human flesh, nod noncommittally, and hurriedly change the subject....If I could back in time, I would go to Stanley Kubrick and tell him to not to make 2001 so dreadfully boring.
All joking aside, this is one of my favorite books of all time. It was the first book by Arthur C.Clarke that I had ever read, and it was one of the books that, along with Frank Herbert's Dune books, changed my expectations as to what Science Fiction could be and what it could achieve.
The plot is divided up into three parts. The first part takes place late in the 20th century, where the US and the Soviet Union are deadlocked to win the space race for military purposes when suddenly gigantic alien spaceships come to earth. The ships belong to a race of beings called 'The Overlords,' Sounds like a cliché alien invasion story, but surprisingly, The Overlords are not on earth for that reason. They don't want to conquer us, heck they announce in the first week of their arrival they are they intend to save mankind from destroying itself. They just sit in their ships and supervise the human race and only interfere when necessary. But, despite their good intentions, many people don't trust them because they don't reveal themselves physically. That doesn't happen until the second half of the book when the plot jumps ahead 50 years and mankind have entered a golden age. And it turns out that the Overlords...looks like the image that everyone has of demons. So what do they want? Well, that's when things get interesting. In the third part and final part of the book, it's revealed that their goal was to guide the evolution of humans until a certain point, namely the point where they develop telekinetic abilities and basically become a hive mind.
Why? Well, it turns out they serve an entity called "The Overmind," a god-like intelligence freed from physical form and made up of an uncountable amount consciousnesses from ancient civilizations. In other words, this thing goes around space adding the consciousness of entire species to itself once they reach a certain point in their evolution. The Overlords, unable to join with it for some reason, act as a kind of bridge for the next species. The book ends when this point is reached in the children of the "Last Generation" and the Overmind takes them into itself.
The plot is fascinating, mixing real science with smart and imaginative speculation of our own future as a species, and on the existence and purpose of alien civilization and what their intentions to humanity are. The book also deals with themes of the evolution and decline of human culture and society as we evolve as a species. I don't have time to run down all the themes. But needless to say, this is the only book I can think of that will make you think and make your head explode (but in a good way).
I especially love the idea of the Overmind. It's neither good nor evil, it's just the end result of evolution. You never really see it, but you can always feel its presence throughout the book just waiting for the time to come to fulfill its purpose. Japanese anime fans, incidentally, will probably recognize the idea of the Overmind as the basis for both Neon Genesis Evangelion's concept of "Human Instrumentality" as well as Space Runaway Ideon's concept of the "Ide." And that was no accident.
I only have two real complaints, the first is that there doesn't seem to be a main character. Although the characters aren't bad by any means, the only ones that come close to being the main focus are the Overlords, but I really couldn't connect with them that much. I dunno what it is, but something about them just makes me scratch my head in utter confusion. They want to be absorbed into the Overmind even though they can't (it's never really explained why). And even if they could, they know that it would mean the absolute end of their species. Does that make sense to anyone else?
My second complaint is that I always found it weird how accepting the human characters are about the whole situation. I mean, early on in the book some countries do try to fight the Overlords but that doesn't work at all, and then they just kinda back off and never try again. The reason being is that the Overlords do what they say they are gonna do, they make very few (but big) demands and they don't interfere with humans unless they have too. They oversee the creation of single world government and basically force humanity to grow up and stop acting like idiots. They're like the ultimate nanny, now that I think about it, just with demon faces. Pretty much the same thing happens when humans learn of the Overmind, there's no mass panic or anything, everyone accepts our extinction as inevitable. Now, this makes sense in context, because (with one very short lived exception) by this point human society and culture has pretty much hit a dead end, and really can't advance any further. So it makes sense, but it certainly wasn't what I was expecting.
But ya know what, that's what I love about this book. It's not predictable, and it's devoid of cliche. It's not about killing aliens, or speculating about new technologies or whatever, it's about exploring ideas. In other words, Clarke took an alien invasion story and used it to talk about philosophical ideas. And as a result, he was able to write one of the masterworks of the genre and help shape what it is today.
If you're a fan of science fiction (or just reading in general) and you haven't read this book, then I say you're long overdue. Check it out.